Category Archives: Uncategorized

“Backbench” revival

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s campaign for the Republican nomination for president is ailing, badly. Before yesterday’s Iowa caucuses he could not but acknowledge that he had no chance of finishing near the top. He said of the presumed front-runner, Donald Trump, “It’s all about him and insulting his way to the presidency is the organizing principle.”

Then he said of the other leaders in the polls, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio: “The two other candidates that are likely to emerge in Iowa are two people that are backbenchers who have never done anything of consequence in their lives.”

Bush has a fondness for the term (an explanation of which you can find by following the above link), having used it in a Republican debate, after a skirmish between Rubio and Cruz: “this last back and forth between two senators–back bench senators, you know–explains why we have the mess in Washington, D.C.”

Unfortunately for Bush, his efforts to dismiss the senators not only as participants in the mess in Washington, but as junior participants, with no experience at actually running anything, doesn’t appear to have much traction. Cruz won the Iowa caucuses with 28 percent and Rubio was a strong third at 23. Bush’s showing? 2.8 percent.


“Fortnightly” Falls Short

In its first season, the extremely popular American podcast “Serial” released one episode a week. However, in the middle of the second season, currently under way, the producers have changed to a once-every-two-weeks schedule. But what should they call it?

There were two obvious options, the American “biweekly” and the British “fortnightly,” a word that had heretofore been confined on these shores mainly to coverage of Grand Slam tennis tournaments. Serial decided to ask the public to choose, via a Twitter poll. If “fortnightly” were to win, it would truly be a red-letter day for Not One-Off Britishisms.

The final tally was close indeed.

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“Fortnightly,” as the saying goes, will have to wait till next year.

“____ Years’ Time”

Astute reader John Wall points to a sentence in today’s New York Times: “The Guardian said on Monday that it intended to cut its costs sharply in an effort to reduce its losses and break even at an operating level in three years’ time.”

He notes, “I think of the phrase with ‘time’ preceded by the possessive form of a measure of time as a very British expression, as in ‘two hours’ time’ or, in this case ‘three years’ time.’ … A native USA speaker/writer of English would, I think, write ‘in three years,’ without the possessive apostrophe or the word ‘time.'”

I was not aware of the Britishness of the formulation, but John is correct, according to this Google Ngrams Viewer graph showing the relative frequency of the phrase “years time” in British and U.S. sources. (Ngram viewer doesn’t recognize apostrophes, so I left it out; and I didn’t include the number of years, so as to include a wider range of citations.)

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Like a number of other NOOBs, “___ years’ time” wasn’t especially British until fairly recently–in this case, the 1920s. It steadily increased in popularity till the late 1980s–the moment when the modest American revival commenced.

Off to OZ

As the end of the year approaches, it’s a good time to thank readers, commentators, and tipsters for another good one. Statistically speaking, 197,444 people visited the blog in 2015, leaving 768 comments. Counting this one, I filed 52 posts–an even one a week. The most-viewed posts were the usual golden oldies: number one was European Date Format, followed by “Mewling quim,” “xx,” “ta-ta,” and “easy peasy.”

Right after the New Year, I am off to Melbourne for a month, where I will be teaching a group of University of Delaware students, soaking up the sunshine, and–not last–on the lookout for not one-off Australianisms.

I’ll be reporting in this space on what I find. Until then, have the merriest of happies.

“Two a penny”

From last week’s New York Times:

“Weather apps are two a penny, but I’ve used one more than any other this year: Yahoo Weather.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition for “two a penny” (“ten a penny” is a variant): “plentiful and consequently of little value, commonplace; easily obtainable or available; occurring frequently.” The OED quotes a 1948 novel by Neville Shute: “In Hollywood beauties were two a penny, and it was years before she got an inkling what it was that differentiated her from all the stand-ins and walkers-on.”

Before reading the quote in the Times, I was unfamiliar with “two a penny.”  Searching the the newspaper’s archives, I see the last time it was used was in a 2005 review of a play by Alan Ayckbourn, which was kind of appropriate, in view of Ayckbourn’s nationality. Given that there is an apparently completely synonymous American cliche–“a dime a dozen”–I don’t expect to encounter “two a penny” here again. But as Fats Waller immortally said, one never knows, do one?

News flash: Mere minutes after this was posted, the following came over Twitter, from Kit Eaton, who wrote the line about Yahoo Weather:

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“Square brackets”

Delegates at the recently concluded Paris climate talks worked from a draft document in which alternate wordings were laid out next to each other. For example:

Parties [shall][agree to] to take urgent action and enhance [cooperation][support] so as to (a) Hold the increase in the global average temperature [below 2 °C][below 1.5 °C][well below 2 °C][below 2 °C or 1.5 °C] [below 1.5 °C or 2 °C][as far below 2 °C as possible] …

An article in the American publication The Atlantic noted that the draft agreement contained “well over 1,000 square brackets.”

“Square brackets” is British English for what Americans call simply “brackets.” I had never encountered the expression until a couple of months who, when an English fellow remarked how odd it seemed when something I’d written referred merely to “brackets.”

“Square brackets” has appeared very occasionally in the New York Times, for example in this 2009 blog post by Jennifer 8. Lee.

My English friend also informed me that in AmE “parentheses” (like this) are “round brackets” in BrE. “Round brackets” has never appeared in the New York Times and I imagine it never will. But as Fats Waller so eloquently said, “One never knows, do one.”

[Update. Some British commenters have said that they are not familiar with “round brackets” but merely say “brackets” for what Americans call parentheses. I certainly take them at their word but the Oxford English Dictionary does have an entry for “round brackets” with British citations, including J. P. Mahaffy Empire of Ptolemies vi. 228: “Superfluous words and syllables, written by mistake of the scribe, are enclosed in square brackets. Necessary additions or corrections in round brackets.” I have also learned from my investigations that “brackets”/”square brackets” were formerly called “crotchets.”]

“Range”; “offer”

There’s a whole set of distinctly British retail terms. One is “offer” for the American “sale.” The other is “range” to mean (in the OED’s definition) “A set of goods manufactured or for sale.” (The dictionary quotes this quintessentially British line from a 1963 issue of Punch: “Harvey Nichols have a new range of Californian swimwear.”)

Both of them turned up in an advert in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer.

dysonI know Dyson originates in the U.K. but still, gee whiz.